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Collective Chemistry: Coworking for Freelance Digital Creatives in Seattle

by Cat Johnson

In 2012, Adam Knight and Jae Macallan, two Seattle-based freelance video professionals, decided to find an office to share. The two were tired of working from home and needed a space that lent legitimacy to their businesses. They found a one-room, windowless, tiny office and got to work. Within a year, they had profound results by simply having a designated workspace.

“Even in that crappy office, we both doubled our income in one year,” says Knight, owner of Red Element Studios, a small video production company. “We really loved having a space that was different from our home and we thought, ‘How can we do this with more people?’”

Knight and Macallan, who owns video and motion company Yoyostring Creative, reached out on Facebook to find other freelance digital creatives interested in sharing an office. They got a great response so they moved out of their tiny office and into a space downtown. Eventually, they broke down a wall in the space and expanded because there was such demand.

“I didn’t even know it was coworking back then,” says Knight, “but people were into it.” 

Now in a new location at 625 1st Avenue, and rebranded as Collective Chemistry, the coworking space is less office and more community. With a strong focus on creating connections between members, Collective Chemistry is a hotbed for freelance digital creatives in Seattle.

I spoke with Knight about the new space, the Collective Chemistry community, and how coworking can transform the lives and businesses of freelancers.

Cat Johnson: Congrats on all your success with Collective Chemistry. Sounds like you’ve come a long way from that first office. What prompted the move into the new space?

Adam Knight: The location at 3rd and Union wasn’t ideal. It was right in the middle of the city, which was fun, but with a lot of our members working on the video side, even pulling over on the road to load in equipment was hard. The new space in Pioneer Square is much better.

When we first saw the space, it was a real mess. It was an ugly space, there was not a lot of natural light, it had carpet, it was drywall everywhere. We squinted really hard and said, ‘What can we do with the space?’ Now we’re really proud of it.

What appealed to you about this space?

It was cheap, and we need that. Coworking space owners don’t do it to make money. Even if you are profitable, you’re never going to make a killing. The goal of this space is not to make money. It’s never been a business model in itself.

All the people here benefit financially from people who hire them—people benefit by being here. I see the big benefit to a space that does narrow its criteria for being a member. I can also see how lots of members from different industries and niches can be beneficial. It goes both ways and we’ve chosen the more focused route.

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What inspired the rebrand to Collective Chemistry?

My company was called Red Element Studios, which led to some confusion about which was the space and which was my business. When we rebranded as Collective Chemistry, we needed an injection of energy—we needed to change stuff up.

Ryan Anderson, one of the co-managers of the space, was the impetus for that. He said, “You need a director of fun.” We were lacking community in our space—lacking things and events that pull people together.

What did you do with Ryan’s suggestion?

He helped us start to think about community management and community cultivating and having events. We have work share events where we all get together and show each other our work. Since we’re all in similar industries, we can give each other feedback easily.

We have outings, we have a meetup group for, not just members of our space, but anyone in our community. It feels tighter now than it did before.

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That can be an interesting challenge, to grow community in a space that’s already established.

That is a really big challenge. We have a leg-up in a way because most of us are in similar industries. That gets us talking and hiring each other. It’s the strongest part of our space.

Another thing that’s different about our space is that we really cater to the freelancer. Not just the independent worker, but specifically the freelancer. Most people in here don’t work for anyone else as a remote worker—they’re self-employed.

The reason that’s important is that being self-employed is really hard. We have to wear a thousand hats to be self-employed. To be able to have someone tell you how they managed a situation is so valuable.

Within the space, you have graphic designers, video editors, cinematographers, animators, photographers, and other creatives. What type of collaboration do you see happening in the space?

For example, my company does video at the Sasquatch festival. We have a crew of 10 come out for that. We needed to hire people, and probably four people are from Collective Chemistry. Same thing with a livestream project we did for Zillo. I think everyone on that crew was a member of Creative Chemistry.

That’s just my stuff. There are short films that are always happening, and sometimes it’s just people helping out on a project.

How do you nurture and encourage a spirit of collaboration in the space?

The meetup we host every month is basically like a support group for freelancers. We share a lot of struggles openly. We get 10-20 people each month around some topic of discussion that’s of interest, but then we just open it up. We’ll quickly go around the circle and ask people what they need right now.

Someone might say they need clients badly right now; someone might say they need legal help. Then, when we break for the open, chit-chatty network times, you know exactly who to talk to. That’s one way we’re encouraging those connections more quickly.

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The space has a mantra: It’s not just a desk, it’s a community. What does that mean for you and for the members?

People who just want a place to work don’t stay very long. It’s really not for them and that’s not actually who we want. If we knew from the beginning that they weren’t going to interact with anyone, we’d probably kindly ask that they not join.

I can’t overstate that comment that it’s not just a desk, that it’s a community. That’s the whole purpose of the space. If the space were built like a Regus or something, that gives space and makes money, that’s one thing, but that’s not why we started this business and why we started this space.

How does the Collective Chemistry mantra and ethos fit with what the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance is doing?

The Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance is a really cool organization to promote the concept of collaboration. We could say it promotes coworking, but no one really cares about coworking if it just means working next to someone. It’s more about connecting. What good is it going to do if you sit next to someone and you never talk to them?

The alliance serves as a support group for collaborative space owners and managers because ultimately we’re trying to cultivate the same thing. Some of us are trying to make real money off of it and some are not, but, money aside, everyone is still trying to create a rich community.

What’s your relationship with the alliance and what kind of impact do you see it making on the Seattle coworking and freelance scene?

It’s part of a greater movement toward independent working and freelancing—the gig economy. Separate from the coworking movement is the gig economy. These two movements happening together are just going to allow it to happen more quickly and more sustainably. A lot more people who are independent workers are going to see the benefits of having a space. As more spaces become available, as they compete to stay affordable, more people will start to see the benefits.

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How would you advise a digital creative who’s considering making the move to coworking?

We offer a free week at our space for anyone who wants to give it a shot. A guy started his free week saying that he didn’t have much work or extra income, but he wanted to try it. At the end of the week, he said he didn’t have any gigs, so he’d have to come back in a few months.

I told him, “Frankly, that’s the wrong reason to leave. That’s exactly the reason to stay.” I suggested he try the laptop membership for a month and see what happens. He hasn’t left yet and it’s been 10 months.

Thanks, Adam. Anything you’d like to add?

We’re excited about our new space. We’ll be here for at least the next five years, and maybe beyond. We just want to keep it sustainable. We really just want it to maintain. We don’t ever want to raise rates if we don’t have to. We are basically a nonprofit, without being a nonprofit.

I think people feel that, and they don’t complain too much when they pay their dues, because they get it. And the people who truly benefit happily pay because they know it’s exactly what they need.

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